01 November 2018

What It Means To Be A Veteran

by Brian Thornton

With Halloween in the rear-view mirror, and the centennial of the agreement which ended the "War to End All Wars" a scant ten days away, I've decided my blog entry this time in the rotation will be an adaptation of a speech I recently gave at a local high school, on the topic of "What It Means To Be A Veteran."

My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran.

I am fifty-three years old, happily married and the father of a six year-old son. I am a writer and teacher: the author of nine books (with two more on the way) and it has been my privilege to teach Ancient & Medieval World History here in the Seattle area, for the past sixteen years.

But before I became a writer, before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

Nearly 20,000 men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916: the single bloodiest day in British history.
The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

United States marines engage German troops at the battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

Allied peace commissioners in November 1918
And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”

I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

As the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served, as well.

With my maternal grandparents in 1987
I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.

During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica.

I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.

I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.

My brother Paul–Christmas, Mid-1990s
The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.

In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things, and so much more.

My Dad graduating from flight school, 1969
None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.

Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as a crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

My grandfather & great-uncle during World War II
I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when he died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered. To be celebrated. To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.

And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself.

A fraternity.

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.


  1. Brian, what a moving and touching post. I agree with and relate to everything you say.

  2. I still go to the battlefield and stand next to the old cannons along what is left of the Rodriguez Canal in Chalmette where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. Sometimes, I can almost hear the faint echo of musketry. I never fails to move me.

    I never saw combat as a veteran.

    But I am and always will be a veteran. And yes, I feel the link to all those who served before me and those who served after me. I am at the back of the line, but I in the line.

    Excellent post, Brian.

  3. Brian, well said. I for one believe we should have mandatory military service for all. It would grow up some of our people and help straighten out some of our nation's problems and just might make some of our leaders more accountable for their actions.

  4. Thank you for your service, Brian. Yes, I'm Canadian, but I still thank you. Our best friends (yes I still believe that, even if others don't) have helped to keep us safe, just as our own military has. I come from a long line of vets. Both grandfathers in WW1, father in WW11, and my nephew is an officer in the Canadian navy. Thank you.

  5. Wonderful post, Brian. Thank you for your service. Blessings on all who have served, and are currently serving, and who will serve in the military.

    Meanwhile, I'm with R.T. - mandatory service for all, because right now it seems that we get into a lot of "unofficial military engagements" that last a long, long, long time, and have no exit strategy, simply because most people don't have skin (i.e., family) in the game. We need to have accountability and recognition that all military engagements cost blood and treasure, instead of it just being something that happens "over there."

  6. Thank you for your service. My father was born in 1918, grew up in Seattle, & was a cartographer in the Navy also. My mother was in the WAVES in World War II. My husband & both brothers-in-law are veterans. I would be in favor of military service for everyone. I am so insulted every time I go into the VA Medical Center, which is quite often because of hubby's medical problems, & see the photo in the lobby of Cadet Bone Spurs!!

  7. Great column, Brian. I too am a veteran, and I'll always be proud of it.

    Thanks for posting this!

  8. Well said Brian, from one squid to another thank you for your service.

  9. I'm a former Army wife, and I appreciate the sentiments. I'm not a believer in mandatory conscription, but I'm glad we have a strong, politically independent military. Thanks for the article.

  10. From one vet to another, well said Brian. I would only add to Janie H., thank you for your service as well being that military spouse who had pick up the slack when your soldier deployed.


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